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Film Brings Black Town’s Death To Life

Donna Britt Washington Post

In 1923, African-American inventor Garrett Morgan patented the automatic traffic light, blues legend Bessie Smith recorded Columbia Records’ first major hit, “Down-Hearted Blues,” and the prosperous black town of Rosewood, Fla., disappeared from the Earth.

It almost disappeared from history.

Those who’ve never heard of Rosewood are about to be hear plenty about the northern Gulf Coast Florida community whose disappearance began New Year’s Day after a white woman, Fannie Taylor, burst onto her porch - beaten, bloody and accusing an unidentified black man. Taylor’s black maids said the culprit was her white lover.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) has made a powerful movie out of the ensuing, weeklong tragedy that destroyed the 150-resident town and that witnesses said left scores of blacks dead.

Bloodhounds led the white county sheriff and a posse to Rosewood, where a World War I veteran was tortured and a blacksmith lynched. A mob fired into the home of piano teacher Sylvester Carrier, killing his mother. Hours after Carrier shot and killed two white men who were kicking in his door, whites from as far away as Georgia converged on Rosewood, burning it to the ground.

The true story - hidden for decades because of survivors’ fear and historians’ silence - resurfaced after a 1982 newspaper story. In 1994, the Florida Legislature awarded $2.1 million to nine survivors and 155 descendants.

Watching “Rosewood,” and its graphic depictions of hangings and mutilations, I felt the sickening mix of rage, sorrow and perplexity I always feel when confronted with America’s racial violence. I could barely speak.

But at least two people who know a lot about Rosewood have expressed disappointment. One refuses to see the film.

Wilson Hall was 8 when his farm-boy existence evaporated with Rosewood. The son of a Nigerian-born sugar-cane farmer and his Cherokee wife, Hall recalls Rosewood as a place “where blacks were independent. White people would come to us” for goods and services.

That fateful week, Hall listened with his widowed mother as neighbors “who, just like the radio, carried news … that they’d started killing and burning.”

Hall has heard how the movie introduces a man he knew: grocer John Wright, Hall’s mother’s employer and one of Rosewood’s few white residents. The film shows Wright having sex with a black woman on a table.

“Why should I see some junk like that?” asks Hall, now 82, who says Wright, well-liked by blacks, wasn’t known to have affairs. “I was there.”

To Hall, Wright - who in the movie exploits blacks before risking all to save them - was all hero. Indeed, Wright arranged safe passage on a Gainesville-bound train for Hall, his mother and five siblings and at least 12 others, as the film shows.

“Mr. Wright told us exactly where to be, way down into the woods,” Hall says. Boys over 12 weren’t allowed on the train, which was twice stopped by whites searching for black men. Hall “got up under the seat and watched (the searchers’) feet.”

Author Mike D’Orso, whose 1996 book “Like Judgment Day” recounted the tragedy through interviews with eight survivors, says Singleton’s film “gorgeously re-creates that time and place.” But he’s disturbed by the fictional character Mann, played by Ving Rhames.

“This mythical black avenger shoots down white men right and left, riding off in triumph,” D’Orso says. “There was no triumph whatsoever in Rosewood.”

People need myths, says D’Orso. But at the screening he attended on “Oprah,” many black viewers cheered each white death. He says he agrees with a young black man who told Winfrey he was disturbed by the cheering because the thirst for retribution just deepens the cycle of violence.

To D’Orso, Florida’s paid compensation suggests “that 70 years later, we’re struggling with issues of race. … That’s a step. A symbol.”

Symbols I understand. After decades of films featuring black people as sheep slaughtered by racists, I have no problems with Singleton’s desire for a hero. But a film that creates a fictional black savior while raising questions about the goodness of a real white human being should be questioned.

I longed to ask Singleton, whom I couldn’t reach, his goal. Was it to remind us of Rosewood or to inflame? Seeing it made me so angry, I cried. But what was I supposed to do with that anger besides mistrust whites more?

Hall, who was there, says this: “I’ve been black for 82 years, and I’ve been denied a lot of things, all because I was black.

“But there’ve been big changes made since Rosewood. … The state’s compensation … tried to correct a lot of mistakes. At the same time, I’ve never known a time when everyone was on the same level.”

Hall snorts. “The truth about Rosewood will never be told now,” he says angrily. “That bothers me because it is a part of me. … And I can never be compensated for what I lost.”

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